The Wisconsin legislation that led to statewide protests and Gov. Scott Walker’s recall and reelection has displayed a quieter, brighter side: It allowed teachers to exercise their freedom of association by choosing whether to join a union, another professional organization, or none of the above.
And teachers have indicated they’re glad for this new freedom: their union membership has declined an estimated 30 percent since Walker signed Act 10 in 2011. The dramatic losses have pushed the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) to merge with an American Federation of Teachers affiliate by winter 2014.
“As a professional, it is my personal responsibility to decide which organization I belong to and why,” said Tracie Happel, a Wisconsin public school teacher who joined the nonunion Association of American Educators. “I am not a robot, I am not stupid, and I can make my own decisions.”
AAE provides liability insurance, legal representation, and professional development, but does not bargain or engage in political activism. Act 10 made teachers “hyper-aware of their options,” said AAE spokeswoman Alexandra Schroeck.
Happel said she, like many other teachers, disagreed with her union’s political activism, and found it irrelevant to her work as a teacher. WEAC uses member dues to support politicians “who do not share my beliefs, ideology, or morals,” she said, and organizations addressing remote causes such as child brides, genital mutilation, and providing water and goats to African villages.
Although these are important matters, Happel said she would rather choose what her money supports, and “they do nothing to actually help the students I teach and work with every day.”
Schroeck says declining Wisconsin union membership doesn’t surprise her. “We hear from teachers across the state searching for a nonpartisan choice that promotes positivity, not conflict and strife,” she said.
Teachers union membership declined nationwide in 2012, and both major unions expect continued losses due to new legislation and pressure on education spending from government debt and entitlements.
If the merger completes, Wisconsin will join Minnesota, Florida, Montana, and New York as a state with merged National Education Association and AFT affiliates.
More Teacher Choice
The number of teachers leaving unions “will only grow as collective bargaining agreements made before Act 10 was enacted expire,” said Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency. “Without a requirement to join or pay the union, teachers will make the decision based on their individual circumstances.”
Union strength depends on exclusivity, Antonucci said, which is why unions demand the ability to bargain for all workers against no competing organizations.
Antonucci says although unions’ membership may decline in some states, they will still wield political power. “Politically, teachers’ unions will continue to be a force, but more on a par with associations of administrators or other education interest groups,” he said. “They will no longer dominate the agenda.”
“Wisconsin Teachers Choose to Be Non-Union,” Association of American Educators: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNJ1DuK2dl8.